Art. LXVI.—The Date of the Extinction of the Moa.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 1st November, 1893]
During the discussion which followed the reading of Captain Mair's paper,* on the 5th October, 1892, on this subject, illustrated by translations of Maori traditions respecting the bird, I said that my own impression was that the moa became-extinct at widely different dates in the various parts of the colony; that north of Auckland, where the land was narrow and densely peopled, the whole of these birds were soon killed off, so that the missionaries seem to have heard nothing about them (though Mr. Polack, who seems to have seen some of the bones, did so, and in his “New Zealand,” published in 1838 expressed his belief, from Maori statements, that some still survived); that when the missionaries visited the east coast of this Island they also saw bones and heard of the bird, though under a different name; and that it was not until the Rev. Richard Taylor came to Wanganui, and found the bones in considerable quantities (particularly at Waingongoro), that the name of “moa” became attached to the bird. I also referred to assertions of these birds being heard or seen by Europeans and Maoris at comparatively recent dates, both in this and the South Island; and in reply to our President, Sir W. Buller, I said that it was a pity that the doubt as to the recent existence of the moa had not been started in the early days of the colony, because forty years ago plenty of evidence could have been got from old Maoris who had hunted and eaten these birds, and were perfectly acquainted with their habits; and I promised to collect any information now available on the subject. I now therefore put before you several pieces of evidence, arranged according to the apparent dates at which the birds referred to in them were alive.
The first is a letter which appeared in the Wanganui Chronicle of the 5th October, 1890, arising out of the discovery of some moa-bones near Wanganui having given rise to some local discussion as to the living birds; and, in reply to my inquiry as to the probable date of the feast referred to, Mr. Rees said he did not know exactly, but inferred, from the Maori statements, that it had taken place apparently between the years 1820 and 1830, at Te Heuheu's place, Tokaanu, the southernmost part of Taupo Lake. Te Heuheu and his pa
[Footnote] * See Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xxv., p. 534.
were destroyed by a landslip in 1846, while, by Maori accounts, he was still not more than a middle-aged man, which again fixes the date approximately.
To the Editor.
In about the year 1850, when residing with Mr. Samuel Clarke, at Waipuna, on the Tamaki River, near Panmure, a Maori from Taupo happened to be staying there. This Maori was about forty-five years of age, and a very intelligent specimen of the Maori of those days, but I forget his name. He told Mr. Clarke and me that he was invited amongst his people to a feast at Taupo, at Te Heuheu's place, where there was to be a moa supplied as part of the feast. However, he said that his party did not arrive until the feast was over, but he saw the skin of the moa lying in a large kit in one of the whares. He said that the skin was as large as the hide of a big ox, and covered with tufts of hairy feathers, and long hairy-like feathers hung down from the head, with the appearance of horse-hair. He afterwards drew a moa on a slate, describing it as about 14ft. high, and generally standing on one leg, and facing the wind, making springs of 30ft. or more at a time. A kick from the moa, he said, would kill any man. The Maoris caught them with snares made of stout ropes.
G. C. Rees.
I am, &c.,
The next is part of a letter which appeared in the New Zealand Herald of 31st October, 1892, from a gentleman who had written to me to the same effect in the previous August. After mentioning that he had seen in a newspaper a reference to what I had written on the subject, he says,—
In the seventies I was practising as a solicitor in London. Among my clients was a Mr. Robert Clark. The matters in which he required my services necessitated frequent interviews between us, both at my offices and his house, and these interviews led to a most sincere and cordial friendship springing up between us, which was only severed upon my leaving England with my family to come out here. When I first mentioned to my friend my intention to emigrate to New Zealand, he said, “Why, I was there over forty years ago (this was about 1870), and can tell you something about that country”; and he added, “I believe I am the only white man living who has seen a live moa.” I need scarcely add how interested and astonished I was, and I asked him to write me his experiences in New Zealand (he passed several years here). At first he was not inclined to take the trouble; but, however, when he found the time draw near when we must bid each other farewell, probably for ever, his kind old heart got the better of him, and he promised me a full account of his rather remarkable life as a parting gift, writing as minute an account as he was able of the moa; and at nearly our last interview he handed me a bundle of manuscript neatly written, and I now extract the following from it regarding that most interesting subject, the moa: “The weather continuing stormy, to pass the time away (until the storm abated, and they could get off in their boats), my mate proposed we should travel inland, taking our muskets, and seeing if we could pick up a few wild birds. We had been out for some time, but nothing whatever showed itself: whilst scrambling amongst bushes and underwood on rather high ground, and looking down to a green patch of about 100ft. long by 40ft. broad—this patch could not have been better kept in order by an experienced gardener—stood an immense black bird of a beautiful form, long legs, long neck, with a rather small head for so large a bird,
piercing eyes (rather large ones), a small beak, having from each side red comb, with a very small crest of a comb on the centre of the head; altogether, I should say, in height 12ft. Being only about 100ft. from him, and looking down, as he was below us and therefore foreshortened, he stood still looking at us, as if surprised. My mate said, ‘We must have a slap at him, and we will fire together. Are you ready?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then let fly!’ The bird took to his heels towards the end of his pleasure-grounds—the grass-plat—dived down, and entered an open clearance in a thick mass of bushes, no doubt his place of roost. We did all we could to get near him, but the scrub, bushes, and other impediments hindered us so that we had to give it up.” From what Mr. Clark says further on, the natives regarded the bird as very uncommon. In conclusion, I may say I feel sure we are very far from knowing all the wonders of this magnificent country yet, and there is a splendid opening for the bold explorer, as I believe other animals exist that are at present unknown to us.
Fred. A. G. Cotterell.
I am, &c.,
Mr. Clark's statement would give a date for the existence of the bird corresponding with that mentioned by Mr. Rees, and with that which all the old Maoris hereabouts always named, as that of the extermination of the moas in this part of the colony.
Mr. William Stanley, formerly of Motueka, tells me that when his family went to reside at that place, there were so many moa-bones in the caves thereabouts that it seemed as if each cave must have been occupied by several birds, either at the same time or in succession, but that, in a few years, these bones all decayed and crumbled away. This would be between the years 1840 and 1850; so that the moas had apparently existed in that part of the colony certainly during the present century.
Mr. Alexander Murray, of Wanganui, states that he came to Wellington in 1841, being at that time a lad of about sixteen years of age. In September, 1842, he and his father were sawing timber for Mr. Gollan, in a gully on the eastern side of Wellington Harbour. There were a number of men (probably twenty or thirty) so engaged, and they lived, some in tents and some in huts, close to where they were working. Early one morning all hands were aroused by a loud roaring cry, evidently close at hand, and some of them turned out to try and ascertain its cause. It was too dark to see anything, but they heard some large object moving off through the bush. When the Maoris were informed of the circumstance they said that the cry must have proceeded from a moa, which they described as a large bird, far taller than a man, and that it had, no doubt, been alarmed by the camp-fire. Mr. Murray says that this was the first time that he ever heard of the existence of such a bird.
During the discussion on Captain Mair's paper, Mr. Maskell spoke of the immense number of moa-bones scattered on the surface of the ground in the South Island when the
settlers first arrived there, and their rapid disappearance afterwards. I have heard the same thing from my cousin, Mr. Strickland Field, who went to Canterbury in 1851. He mentions one instance in particular, in 1852 or 1853, when he and his brother found, apparently, the whole of the bones of a medium-sized bird, where it had seemingly lain down and died, beside a large flax-bush, at St. Albans, near Christchurch. I happen to have always grown a few bushes of the very best kind of Phormium tenax (that called by the Maoris of this part tihore wharariki) for the last forty years, and, as the result of my experience, I can say that the life of a flax-bush does not exceed from twenty to twenty-five years. Long before that time it becomes hollow in the centre, and divides into several smaller bushes, preparatory to dying out altogether. All my original bushes have been dead for many years, and I renew them by planting fresh fans from time to time. The position, therefore, in which these bones were found bears out the opinion formed by my cousins at the time, that from-their freshness and soundness the bird could not have been many years dead. My cousins collected the bones and carried them to Christchurch in a sack, which they placed among some shrubs in their father's garden. Six or eight years later when moa-bones were being sought for as curiosities, they looked for the sack and its contents, and found that the whole had completely rotted away.
I have taken notice of late, and made inquiry from others, as to the time it takes bones of animals to decay and disappear, and I find that it varies greatly according to soil and situation. I am assured that, on the top of a high dry ridge, where there is but little soil, bones will last for twenty or thirty years, while on the flats near my own residence there is no brace of such bones even after five or six years. I find that large bones, like those of a horse or a cow, somewhat shade the ground, promoting the growth of grass, and causing worms and beetles to establish themselves beneath them. From these two causes, and particularly from the burying operations of the latter, the bones soon sink into the surface and decay, nourishing the grass and being absorbed by it in the process. From the cellular structure of moa-bones, it seems to me that they would decay far faster than those of an ox or horse, so that those seen in Otago and Canterbury in the early days of those settlements must have belonged to birds that had not been very long dead.
In October last I mentioned that I had received information from Major Lockett, an ex-officer of the Imperial Forces, which indicated that the moa still existed, in the Nelson Province, certainly up to 1857 or 1858. On my return to Wanganui I got the Major to give me the following memoran-
dum on the subject. He has told me in conversation that, from his having hunted a good deal in India, he is quite sure that the sounds which he heard were not produced by any quadruped.
Shortly after the commencement of the Collingwood (Nelson) diggings, I started one evening, rather late in the day, to walk over the range that divides Riwaka from the Takaka. On arriving at the top of the range, I proceeded about half a mile, when I found that it would soon be dark. I determined to camp where I was. I lighted a fire and rolled myself in my blankets, and went to sleep. How long I slept I know not. I was awoke by hearing a most unearthly scream close to me, and apparently some feet from the ground. This noise was followed by a drumming sound—similar to that made by a woodhen, but louder and gruffer. The scream I speak of was more of the nature of a roar, and different from anything I had ever heard. I immediately seized my gun and stood on my feet—when I distinctly heard something walking away. I immediately followed, but as my fire was almost out, and the dark clouds overshadowed the moon, and knowing there was some precipitous ground in the vicinity, I returned to my camping-ground. In about half an hour the noise was repeated, at a distance of 400 or 500 yards. In a few minutes this roar was replied to by a similar one, from the sandy-bay side of the range, distant more than a mile; from what source this noise came I have not the slightest idea. On returning by the same route I stayed with a Mr. Cook, a Riwaka farmer, and mentioned the circumstance to him. He had been for many years residing on this farm, and he informed me that he frequently heard the same roar, and was unable to conjecture what it was. There was a Maori sitting in the room where we were talking, and, having been a whaler for many years, talked English as well as I did. He remarked, “I know what it was—a good many years ago I saw some—it is a large kiwi, as big as this”—standing up and holding his hands aloft. Mr. Cook informed me that this Maori, known as Tommy Brunner, was a thoroughly reliable man, and what he said could be depended upon. This is simply all I know of the matter. I am quite sure it was no four-footed animal, from the height the noise seemed to come.
About twelve months afterwards four English emigrants arrived, wearing the smock-frock then worn by farm-labourers. They proceeded to Golden Gully looking for work, and shortly afterwards went some miles further on—prospecting, I presume. They returned in great alarm one day, stating that they had come suddenly upon an enormous bird standing at the entrance of a cave or hollow on the hillside. They described the bird as standing about 8ft. or 9ft., of a brown colour, with a red mark round the eye. With the greatest difficulty we persuaded them to show us the spot where they said they had seen the bird. A party was formed, and remained and examined the cave and other places for the period of two or three days. A number of caves were found, but not all explored. In conclusion I may state that these countrymen had seen or fancied they had seen something, for they were thoroughly frightened. On inquiry we found they had never heard of a moa; and, judging from their manner and conversation, I do not think they could ever have been twenty miles from their home. They were all large able-bodied men, but thorough country-bumpkins, and quite unable, I should imagine, to invent such a story. And the fear they showed proved that something had frightened them.
The Maori, apparently, did not know the bird by the name of “moa”—only as a wingless one, like the kiwi.
I also mentioned that I had been told by a person in Wanganui that his brother-in-law had seen two moas somewhere in the Rangitikei district, and apparently inland of Marton or Hunterville, and that on writing to this man Olsen (one of the Danes who came out with Bishop Monrad) I got more reliable information. His letter is as follows:—
You must excuse me for not answering your letter before, as it got mislaid. Mr. A. Harrison informed you that I had seen two moas, but it's wrong; it was a friend of mine who saw one. There were twelve or fourteen other men who saw it at the same time, and it frightened the life out of the lot of them. They cleared for their bare lives, so he told me. He said that he was frightened when he saw it come out of the bush and walk across the clearing as well as them. These other men said nothing about it that I know of; as they were up there on the quiet a-prospecting. There was a great depth of snow on the ground at the time: it was coming on winter. This friend of mine his name was Sutherland. He was a man that any one could speak after. How he came to see it—he got some land up there off the Maoris, and was a-going sheep-farming, but he only got one season up there. In the winter he told me there was from 3ft. to 4ft. of snow on the ground, and the wild pigs devoured all the lambs. The locality is about sixty miles up the Rangitikei River, on this side. If I were where he was I could tell you just the place where the bird was seen. After he had seen the bird he came down that sixty miles on purpose to get a rifle and sixty rounds of ammunition. He stayed with me a night or two till he got what he wanted, and then went back. He told me his intention, if ever he saw it again, he was a-going to shoot it. He described the colour and height of the bird well to me at the time. He said it must have stood 16ft. or 17ft. high, and the body a tremendous size. The colour of it was speckle or greyish colour, with a woolly look. He would not forget the colour, as he must have seen it so plain.
Now, that happened just twenty-two years ago this coming winter. You can depend upon this as true to the best of my belief. I have given all the information I can about the moa that I got from the man who told me that he saw it. Now, if you think it worth your while to find Sutherland, he is somewhere in the country, I suppose. It's only twenty-two years since I saw him. I think I have sent you all I know.
I remain, yours respectfully,
To Mr. Field.
As I happened to know of this man Sutherland as having resided in the locality described, I made inquiry about him, and learnt that he was dead. I, however, found that he had left a son, whom I saw. The young man told me that he had no recollection of his father having mentioned that he had seen a moa, but that he had repeatedly heard old Maoris speak of them as existing in their younger days, and as having disappeared through the wild pigs destroying their eggs, and the large dogs, introduced by the whalers, having killed the young birds—causes which seem very likely ones to have led to such a result.
The following appeared in the Wanganui Chronicle of 17th June, 1893:—
On Tuesday Mr. Drew received a valuable contribution to our local Museum in the shape of the bones of perhaps the most perfect example of a moa yet found in New Zealand. The bones were exposed among the sandhills between the Turakina and Wangaehu Rivers by a late gale, and, having been noticed at once, have been brought to Wanganui in a very perfect condition. Though the skeleton will only stand 4 ½ft high, it is evidently that of an adult bird of a small variety of moa. This is proved not only by the hardness of the bones, but by the fact that, along with them, were many fragments of the shell of an egg, which must have been nearly hatched, as there were also bones of the young chick. It would seem as if the bird had been overwhelmed by the drifting sand while sitting on her nest. Even the bones of the head are complete, which is a very unusual circumstance, as from their fragility they usually get broken as soon as exposed to the weather and the trampling of stock. Along with the bones are the harder portions of the windpipe, which, we believe, had never been previously found under similar circumstances, and seem to point unmistakably to the bird having been alive at a comparatively recent date.
There is an inaccuracy in the report, the bones having been found on the other side of the Wanganui River. It is the only instance in which I have known of tracheal rings being found with moa-bones; and fragments of egg-shells are not often met with in this part. Only a few weeks ago the bones of a moa were found in a cave near Eketahuna by a party of roadmen, who divided them among them, instead of having the sense to collect them carefully and offer them for sale to some museum or collector of curiosities, as a perfect skeleton. I believe that, even when found, many skeletons have been destroyed or dispersed, owing to the ignorance of the finders.
I never could understand how the idea that the moa had been extinct for ages had arisen, since it seems to me that all the real evidence on the subject points to their having survived to quite a recent period—if, indeed, there may not be some in existence at the present day.
In a letter which I received from Professor Hutton, in September, 1892, he said that “in 1866 a smart New-Zealander got up a company in London to catch moas on the West Coast.” This indicates that at that date there must have been a very strong belief in the survival of the birds in that locality; and I remember Mr. G. Roberts, Government surveyor, telling me of one reported to have been seen there at even a later date, I think by some of his own survey party, on the opposite side of a flooded stream. The birds have been repeatedly reported as having been seen on the West Coast.
I was much struck by Mr. Tregear's paper on this subject in last year's Transactions, because the circumstance mentioned by him seems to me to point in the diametrically opposite direction from that which he appeared to think that it indicated. In my early days I read that the domestic fowl was introduced into the South Sea Islands by the missionaries,
and, as I have never met with any statement to the contrary, I believe the information to be correct. If, then, the natives of those islands, on seeing a bird of larger size than the other land-birds with which they were acquainted, and with only imperfect powers of flight, gave it the name of “moa,” it seems to me that they must have had, in some way, a tradition of a struthious bird, so called, haying formerly existed, either in the islands or in the country from which they themselves had come. I see no reason why all the Europeans (mostly uneducated men), who would not be likely to have heard of the moa, who, from time to time, have asserted that they have seen gigantic birds in the colony, should be set down as liars, or why the Maoris should be credited with having invented yarns about the birds to please us pakehas. If the Maoris never saw the bird, how should they have known that the bones belonged to one, and not to a mammal? and how should they have been able to describe its appearance and habits so correctly? I noticed that several of the traditions quoted by Captain Mair mentioned the birds as living in caves, and having red eyes or heads. The frequency with which the bones have been found in caves might give rise to the former idea, but certainly not to the latter; yet it is corroborated by passages in the letters of Mr. Cotterell and Major Lockett; and in the travels of a Swedish naturalist, named Helmholz, who visited Australia a few years back, I read that the Queensland cassowaries, or some of them, have red heads, and are nocturnal in their habits, hiding themselves in the thickest forests during the day. It is curious that all the Europeans who have reported having seen the birds seem to have spoken of doing so either in the evening or very early morning, and that what appears to have been their cry was also only heard at night.
It was from the Maoris that we learnt that the curious little heaps or groups of quartz pebbles scattered about the country were the crop-stones of the moa. But for the fact that they called these collections of white pebbles puku moa (moa's stomachs), and so led us to inquire, I doubt whether the reason of such pebbles being always found in such clusters, and so only, would have been likely to occur even to highly scientific men, though the fact of the stones being so collected had attracted general notice. Forty or forty-five years ago the Wanganui Maoris spoke of the existence of the bird in the vicinity of the Ruahine Range as a certain fact, and some years later a party who had gone up the Oroua River on a prospecting expedition asserted that they had seen a bird answering to the description.
Again, when I mentioned that an old Maori had described the bird to me, fully forty years ago, as fighting by standing on
one leg and striking forward with the other, Sir W. Buller said that this was the practice of all the struthious birds; and his words were corroborated last February by Mr. Bramley, the former curator of the Botanical Gardens at Wellington, who told me that he had had his clothes thus torn by a cassowary, which was formerly in the Gardens, when it was being shipped away; but how should a Maori have known of this practice unless acquainted with the bird? There is also a correspondence between the Maori and European statements as to the general colour of the bird, and the hairlike appearance of its plumage, and an agreement, in both cases, with that of cassowaries, which could hardly have arisen except from the narrators having really seen the birds which they professed to describe.
I think it would be well if some member of the Westland branch of the New Zealand Institute would take the trouble to collect the various notices which have been printed from time to time respecting moas being seen on the west coast of the South Island, and any other information on the subject that can now be obtained there; as the subject is an interesting one, though, perhaps, not of any practical value.